In her second novel, When She Woke, Hillary Jordan imagines a totalitarian future world in which life is not worth living.
Like The Scarlet Letter it is a portrayal of an adulterer cast out by society. In many ways it is a retelling of Nathanial Hawthorne’s 19th-century classic. And like Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale, it is an exploration of a society’s subjugation of women. The most prominent thread running through the fabric of Jordan’s highly dramatic, dystopian fantasy is a warning about the consequences of allowing religious fanatics to dominate the state. It is almost immediately apparent that the novel lacks nuance and subtlety, that it is too direct and overstated for thoughtful readers.
The main character, 25-year-old Hannah Payne, has not only committed adultery, she has had an abortion. For these crimes the State of Texas has injected her with a virus that turns her skin a bright red – the color of blood to remind her of her aborted fetus. She has refused to testify as to the identities of the baby’s father or the abortionist, a refusal for which six additional years have been tacked on to her sentence. After serving 30 days in the Chrome ward of the state prison she must “remain a Red for a period of 16 years.” She is required to return to the Chrome center every four months for a fresh injection to keep her skin red. Without a renewal shot she would slip into fragmentation and either mutilate or kill herself.
Hannah’s former pastor at the twenty-thousand member Church of the Ignited Word, the attractive, 37-year-old Reverend Aiden Dale, is not present at her trial. He has moved to Washington D.C. to accept the prestigious post of America’s Secretary of Faith, a position in which he inspires millions by word and example. But Aiden is not what he appears.
It is none other than Aiden Dale himself who proves to be the father of Hannah’s baby. Until her love affair with Aiden, Hannah had been an innocent creature. Her parents had taught her “that her highest purpose as a woman, the purpose for which she’d been created, was to get married, be a helpmate to her husband and raise a family.”
But Hannah unknowingly waded into dangerous waters when she took a part-time job at her church’s First Corinthians Ministry, a position that required her to work closely with Aiden. From the beginning there is a “charged quality to their interactions.” The Ministry was the charitable arm of the church. Its responsibility was to help the community’s neediest and most troubled members. It was Reverend Dale’s pet project, and he was often seen “delivering food to the poor, driving addicts to rehab and homosexuals to conversion therapy.”
Hannah loves Aiden intensely – even more than their unborn child – and will not jeopardize his marriage and career by naming him as her lover. She knows she will go to hell for violating the Sanctity of Life laws.
Like Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Hannah is a quintessentially fragile figure, dwarfed by life’s circumstances, but she fails to evoke reader compassion because she doesn’t seem human. Even though Jordan depicts her behavior, thoughts, and emotions in great detail, Hannah merely represents one of society’s victims; she doesn’t grow credibly as a character. In fairness, perhaps no writer could render a bright-red person believable.
Because of the flaws in developing the central character, the themes Jordan undertakes to convey – themes prominent in The Scarlet Letter, fall flat. Despite its convincing setting and intelligent writing, When she Woke is disappointing.